Kat Armstrong

Kat Armstrong. Photo: Anthony Johnson

Christmas Day is the worst time of year for the 500 or so mothers in NSW's prisons.

''It's feral,'' recalled Kat Armstrong, who served three sentences totalling 10 years for armed robbery.

Despairing at not seeing their children, women would feel ''phenomenal guilt'', fights would erupt and self harm often reached record highs.

"It's a time when you celebrate as a family,'' said Ms Armstrong, now the director of the Women in Prison Advocacy Network.

''Regardless of how dysfunctional your background was or how bad your family was, not being there to celebrate with the children makes for a volatile situation in any environment.''

This Christmas Day there will be no visitors. Since a 2007 Industrial Relations Commission ruling giving prison officers the day off, the 2700 families who used to visit every year have been forced to come another day.

There are 10,500 prisoners in NSW, including about 700 women. Justice Action has lobbied for visits to resume. Co-ordinator Brett Collins said the government's decision was short-sighted cost cutting that was hard-hearted and unChristian.

"If dad isn't there, and he misses out on Christmas, he becomes estranged from the family," he said. Even when visitors were allowed, Ms Armstrong recalls dramatic scenes where families were denied access after travelling from across the state because they were 10 minutes late.

''If they thought their children were coming, and then they didn't end up coming, women would end up in segregation because they would lose the plot,'' she said.

It was so traumatic that she often told her mother not to bring her daughter, Phoebe, from whom she was estranged for more than seven years.

During the first Christmas visit, Phoebe, then a toddler, sat in Ms Armstrong's lap for more than two hours with her arms around her mother's neck.

''When it came time to go, she was screaming and didn't want to leave. There was an emotional tug of war trying to drag Phoebe off my neck. And that was happening all around me.''

Julie Power